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At Masters, Phil Mickelson shows Tiger Woods how it’s done

A Masters golf tournament that began with Tiger Woods ended with the man that, in some respects, Tiger Woods is striving to become.

Yes, Phil Mickelson.

Think about it.

Probably for the first time since his dad gave him a lollipop on the 18th green, Woods was seen smiling on the golf course earlier this week – and not that maniacal, Hannibal Lecter I’ve-just-finished-my-fava-beans-and-a-nice-chianti smile he flashes when he’s just made a main course of the rest of the field. But a nice, Happy Tiger smile.

Well, Phil Mickelson is that man every time he slips on the KPMG cap. He’s the frat boy let loose on the galleries – high fiving grandfathers and blasting three irons through the Georgia pines with a “check this out, dude,” nonchalance.

But there’s more.

On Sunday, Woods’ wayward drives sprayed so far and wide that NORAD went to DEFCON-1 and scrambled fighter jets over Augusta. Mickleson did not bogey all day.

And, of course, after winning his third Masters with a score of 16 under par, Mickelson not only walked into the arms of a tearful wife after the 18th green, but this win was all but dedicated to her as she deals with illness.

Tiger’s wife? Apparently you could follow her whereabouts on some celebrity website. One place she wasn’t: August National.

Sunday could have marked another day in the resuscitation of Tiger Woods. But it was an opportunity missed.

This is not about his golf – though by the measure of the scorecard and his bruised driver that was a disappointment, too.

No, this was about the man that he had vowed to become – the man who said Monday that life was less about championships than the way one lived his life. By that measure, Woods’ golf game on Sunday the perfect result at the perfect time.

It asked him to grow.

Tiger Woods’ final round Sunday had the appearance of someone throttling a chicken. In the end, it kind of worked (he was 3 under on the day), but it wasn’t pretty.

On the first hole, Woods drove the ball onto the ninth fairway, which was something of a victory in that his shot actually landed on a fairway. On the 14th green, he three putted from six feet.

It was, by Tiger’s high standard, a duffer’s day like few others in his career. And yet, in that hailstorm of tiny Nike missiles, Woods’ single greatest golfing attribute was arguably even more apparent: his fight.

Had virtually anyone else in the field had a driving day like Woods, their score would have looked more like a bad credit rating. That Woods could salvage 3 under par for the round was, in many respects, nothing short of miraculous.

Moreover, who would not have given Woods a mulligan for Sunday’s performance?

To finish fourth in the Masters, five shots off the lead, in your first tournament back after five of the most tumultuous months in modern sports history would seem, to many, a moderate success.

A little perspective. A little humility. A little grace was all that was required.

And yet the world instead saw Angry Tiger again, belittling reporters’ questions and churlishly calling his tournament “unsuccessful.”

Perhaps it was. Woods has not become the golfer he is by celebrating silver medals – much less fourth-place finishes.

Yet Woods the Golfer is no longer the full measure of the man. He said so himself.

Mickelson has his own issues among the golfing fraternity, it seems. But act or not, he does not play the game of golf as though sitting in a dentist’s chair.

He is the golf fan’s golfer because of his apparent love of the game of golf, both in his on-course demeanor and the shotmaking that holds the hint of wink.

If Woods is the bull, galloping through the galleries with fire-eyed fury, ready to gore any unsuspecting autograph-seeker on his seven-iron, then Mickelson is the toreador, playing to the crowd and flourishing his clubs like mesmerizing weapons.

On a weekend when Tiger vowed to be more human on the golf course, it was Tiger’s golf itself that seemed human, and his rival that seemed to hit the right note time after time.

To be sure, this tournament will be an education for Woods as he seeks to strike a new balance in his life. But perhaps the most valuable lessons he takes from the 2010 Masters will be those taken from beyond the tee.

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